Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Complete Second Season (Original run 1997, Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, 2002)

  If you haven't watched the second season yet:

1: Here be spoilers! Why are you wasting your time reading this?

2. If you're watching the DVDs and you want to skip the theme song, don't use the chapter selector button. Fast forward through it. On some episodes, there isn't a chapter break immediately after the song, and in a few places, the story appears to resume at a plausible point, so you might miss the beginning of the episode and not know it.

I'm starting with episode summaries. They're intentionally a bit vague; if you've forgotten some of the details, I think it's better for you to be reminded by watching the shows again, not by reading this. I have included some comments about individual episodes in the summaries, but my thoughts about the season come in the later sections.

People tend to think of a television season as an artistic unit, like a book in a series. That's understandable, since creative teams change from season to season. With Buffy's second season, that notion will mislead you.

"When She Was Bad" is the first season's epilogue. Joss Whedon writes and directs the show in which Buffy comes to terms with saving the world and dying and having to go on, knowing that she'll be in danger again, and the people she loves may die, and she herself may die again, and the next time, she might not come back, or might not want to come back, because she'll only have to face it all again.

Sounds dreary? Despite the grim subject, this episode balances the gritty and the giddy with the wit and grace we expect after season one. If you're interested in character development, this episode's a "best yet." To protect herself from life's emotional battering, Buffy tries to make herself into someone she's not, and nearly succeeds.

In many ways, this one episode puts Buffy through everything that she endures in season six. That's part of the reason season six feels familiar and tired; we saw the most important part of it here in a single show, faster, funnier, and more true.

Ty King's "Some Assembly Required" retells "Bride of Frankenstein" with science nerds and football jocks. It's a prequel to the next arc that bolsters the status quo: Giles likes Jenny Calendar, Willow likes Xander, Xander likes Buffy, Buffy likes Angel, Angel's afraid to love.

The show's second arc truly begins with Greenwalt's "School Hard." Spike and Drusilla, TV's most romantic couple, come to Sunnydale, and the annoying Anointed One meets his fate. Joyce Summers gets her first big hint that Buffy is more than she seems when Joyce, Principal Snyder, and a small group of adults are trapped in the high school by Spike's gang.

Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer's "Inca Mummy Girl" looks like a stand-alone episode, but it's essential to the season's subplots: Willow sees that she must quit dreaming that Xander will notice her. Xander realizes that his love for Willow may not be romantic, but in matters of life and death, his loyalties are clear. Jonathan makes his first appearance, and so does Oz. The episode's main story may not be all that it could be -- we're never convinced that Xander has fallen deeply for the new girl -- but the subplots are fine.

Greenwalt's "Reptile Boy" sends Buffy to a frat party, and Cordelia learns that she would do well to stop wanting cool older guys. Angel joins the Scoobs for the rescue, and effectively loses his status as a potentially scary outsider.

Carl Ellsworth's "Halloween" reveals a hidden side of Giles, introduces the delightful Ethan Rayne as the proprietor of a costume shop, and has Willow taking a big step forward in being comfortable with who she is.

In Whedon's "Lie to Me," an old friend of Buffy's comes to Sunnydale, and we learn that not all humans who know about vampires are afraid of them. A lot of people lie to Buffy for a lot of reasons. Most of the lies come from a desire to protect Buffy, and only hurt her. The story sounds like a fine stand-alone, but it isn't; the lies are built on all we've seen before. This one ends with one of the show's best moments between Buffy and Giles.

Batali & Des Hotel's "The Dark Age" moves deeper into the past of Giles and Ethan Rayne. Actually, it moves into the past of a DC Comics character named John Constantine, part of whose history has been given to Giles, and I'd love to know whether Mutant Enemy Productions ended up paying DC not to raise a stink. To be fair to Mutant Enemy, they take the Constantine premise in a different direction, culminating in Jenny Calendar's discovery of how personal the battle against evil can be.

Howard Gordon and Marti Noxon's "What's My Line? Part One" and Noxon's "What's My Line? Part Two" introduces Kendra the Vampire Slayer, an especially creepy bounty hunter, and an unlikely romance for Xander. This one expands the BtVS mythos and alters the emotional dynamic of the show. It would be a high point for most TV seasons. Here, it's only the start of the climb.

Gordon and Whedon's "Ted" shifts the focus to home as Buffy faces the possibility of getting a stepdad. Though there are supernatural creatures in the supporting story as Giles and Jenny Calendar work out their romantic difficulties, the main story in "Ted" is science fiction, not fantasy. Buffy faces the possibility that she's killed a human; though we never fear that she has, the emotional consequences are nicely handled.

In Noxon's "Bad Eggs," the Scoobs are involved in a high school project: To learn about the consequences of pregnancy, they must take care of eggs as though the eggs were babies. This episode introduces the Gortch brothers, two cowboy vampires, and Buffy saves Jonathan for the first of many times. All of the Scoobs have promising romances, a rare moment in the lives of Buffy and her friends. Things must turn for someone soon.

Noxon's "Surprise" and Whedon's "Innocence" form a single story, and three relationships take deadly blows: Angel is snatched from Buffy in the worst possible way, Giles rejects Jenny after he learns why she came to Sunnydale, and Spike and Drusilla begin to be pulled apart by the arrival of a new ally. But in this romantic turmoil, Oz gives one of the show's great romantic speeches, Giles shows that his loyalties lie with Buffy, and Joyce does the Mom thing in the final touching scene.

Des Hotel & Batali's "Phases" is simultaneously a complication and resolution of the Oz-Willow flirtation. It has two of the season's great moments: Xander confronts Larry, the school bully, and at the show's end, there's yet another fine romantic speech. Scary Angel gets a nice moment of his own. The only low point is a goofy werewolf costume.

Noxon's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" brings back Amy the Witch and shows Xander's ignoble side in a story about rejection and a love spell gone wrong. And the pattern of great romantic speeches continues.

Ty King's "Passion" features the resolution of the Giles-Jenny Calendar romance, as well as what may be the series' most horrifying moment. No, it's not when a major character dies. It's how another character learns of the death.

Des Hotel & Batali's "Killed by Death" focuses on Buffy in a hospital where something is preying on children. There's a great moment between Giles and Cordelia, and a memorable villain that seems like a precursor of the Gentlemen in season four's "Hush."

Noxon's "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a ghost story about a student who killed himself and his lover in the 1950s, and now forces others to play out his story. It's a brilliant examination of obsession, remorse, and forgiveness that makes good use of all of the season's main characters. This may be Noxon's finest moment.

David Fury & Elin Hampton's "Go Fish" is the season's one false note. Judged as a stand-alone, it's not bad. It has some funny bits, but its tone is off. The Scoobs are surprisingly coldblooded about the deaths of strangers; they seem more like professional monster hunters than the people we've come to love. It's science-fiction, not fantasy. Its inclusion of the rape fears of "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Humanoids from the Deep" are out of place here, because this isn't a story about sexuality or obsession. It's about the desire to win.

Whedon writes and directs "Becoming, Part One and Two." Kendra returns, and Buffy finds her main ally is Spike. There's death, funny lines, doomed romance, and a sword fight. What more could anyone want from a television show? It's a great end to what may be the tightest emotional arc of the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I reserve the right to change my opinion when I review season three, because its arc is also great.

The general reason this season is great is because it's about love in many forms. A specific reason it's great is the Spike and Drusilla romance. They're the first ongoing villains who touch Buffy's personal life. In their case, it's initially through Angel: Angel sired Dru, Dru sired Spike, and when Angel turns bad, he'd like some fun with Dru again, though his obsession with Buffy doesn't abate.

A difficulty of talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a single artistic creation is that it's not. The show changed its concepts over the years. One of the big ones: the writers never quite decided what a soul is or does. The challenge is understandable. For the purity of the metaphor of demons as the challenges we all face every day, demons should lack redeeming qualities. But that's a very simple metaphor, and perhaps its only to be expected that the writers would want to bend or break it. By season six, characters constantly claim that vampires can't love because they don't have souls. The earlier seasons contradict that claim.

What makes the Spike and Dru romance so touching is that Spike loves. Dru's insane, and she's been badly injured so that she's terribly weak. If he didn't love her, he would leave her; that's what self-interest demands. Instead, he treats her with tenderness, and does anything he can to make her strong again. It may be a perverse manifestation of love, but it's a truer love than many people get in real life. He gets impatient with her, and she's hurt, and he apologizes. He tries to find ways to cheer her. He never considers dallying with another. It's love, and it makes Spike a wonderfully tragic figure.

Later on, there's another moment that plays against the claim that vampires can't love: Spike's agony is more than the simple fury of one man watching another play with his toy.

A lesser hint that vampires can love comes from the Gortch Brothers, who seem to have carried their close relationship into undeadness, and to be willing to risk their lives for each other. Since there's no clear test of that, I won't belabor this. I'll just note that much of what we like about the Gortches is that they like each other.

This is the year in which Angel -- Angel with a soul, anyway -- became boring. David Boreanaz appears to have put on a few pounds, he's not nearly as often shown in shadow, and none of the Scoobies are afraid of him when he wears his vampire face (Xander's dislike for Angel comes from jealousy, not doubt about whether Angel can be trusted). Angel joins in fighting bad guys as readily and almost as often as the core Scoobs.

Maybe the extreme difference between nice Angel and evil Angel makes evil Angel more frightening. Personally, I would've liked to have seen a nice Angel who kept a little more of the darkness that he had in season one. It's a minor quibble.

"What's My Line? Part Two" is Marti Noxon's first solo script. Since Noxon took over much of the show running chores in season six, it's interesting to compare how several of her concerns -- BD/SM games and Buffy's desire to have a normal life -- are handled here, where they reinforce the story, and in season six, where they often become the story.

"What's My Line?" establishes that Willow's a world-class computer whiz. It sets up the possibility of Willow getting freelance jobs when any of the Scoobs are desperate for cash -- a possibility that was forgotten in season six.

Xander is a little more capable in this episode than he's been before. He tends to think of the solutions, and Buffy then obeys or agrees, a curious development in a show about girl power. It's a pattern that's repeated in seasons six and seven, when the girls often don't know what to do, but Xander and Giles do.

In "Bad Eggs," the Gortch Bros. begin to bend the Buffyverse's vampire lore. The official claim of the Buffyverse is that when someone becomes a vampire, a demon possesses the body, acquiring the memories, but not the personality or the soul. That holds true with the revelation that Angel, before he became a vampire, was a wastrel. But the Gortch Brothers were heartless murderers before they became vampires. The implication is that the official story of vampires being bodies occupied by demons is wrong.

During the first season, the occasional science fiction element was over-ridden by horror: computers and robots were possessed by demons, and not simply malfunctioning or obeying a mad scientist. The second season features several science fiction episodes. "Some Assembly Required" lies in the grey area of science-fiction horror, thanks to its theme of raising the dead, but the main stories of "Ted" and "Go Fish" are firmly science-fictional: robots and chemically-induced mutation. All three episodes have their merits, but they make me want to add another point to my "Buffy Lessons": Keep to your genre.

Genres can be defined by the number of things that they ask the reader to accept in the course of a story: science fiction asks you to accept a form of science that goes where contemporary science cannot, fantasy asks you accept a world in which the miraculous is possible, and horror asks you to accept an inimical universe where bad things want to destroy the innocent. Horror is a bastard genre, defined by what it seeks to evoke: there's supernatural horror like Dracula, science fiction horror like Alien, and mainstream horror like Psycho, where the most frightening thing is the human mind.

When we seek genre entertainment, we expect things: comedies should be funny, historicals should be set in the past, tragedies should end badly for someone we like or admire or pity. For its first season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a supernatural horror show. It was an extremely intelligent and thoughtful and funny supernatural horror show, so it appealed to a lot of people who generally didn't like horror or the supernatural. But at its core, BtVS is the story of a Vampire Slayer, just as Batman is the story of a costumed hero. That means we want Buffy to fight vampires primarily, and other supernatural things occasionally, and if she travels in time or visits other worlds, we want her to go because of magic, not science.

The problem is that Buffy's writing team saw her as a superhero. The most satisfying superhero stories have a purity of vision: the reason for the character's existence as a hero is tied to the nature of the challenge. Superman should not fight demons, Zorro should not fight time travellers, and Buffy should not fight the electro-mechanical creations of scientific geniuses.

That's not to say that the science fiction episodes of Buffy are bad. They would just be a little more satisfying had they sprung from a supernatural premise.

The little stuff: I think they remixed the theme song for second season. It sounds even better. And the episode titles on the DVDs are now in a row. Even I can tell at a glance which one to play next.

 

[Will Shetterly]